by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Dec. 21, 1998.
Milton Babbitt is eighty-two; Elliott Carter is ninety. They are the unreconstructed modernists of American music, and they’re still here. After all the culture wars that have raged around them—the polemics, the internecine squabbles, the countless one-night stands with listeners who cough their indifference aloud in every bar—they might have been expected to bow out. Instead, they are writing the freshest, fiercest works of their careers. Babbitt still talks a mile a minute, convulsing audiences in laughter when he speaks his mind. (At a concert in Weill Recital Hall in November, Babbitt’s “Reflections for Piano and Synthesized Tape” followed Brahms’s G-Minor Intermezzo; the composer got up onstage and said, “After hearing these pieces, I understand why people talk about ‘the two B’s.’ ”) His music still shuffles and shimmies like jazz from another planet.
Carter, meanwhile, has been working at a pace that would be hazardous for someone half his age. His ninetieth birthday, on December 11th, is an occasion not for retrospectives but for a half-dozen premières. In the last few years, he has produced the most ambitious piece of his career—the fifty-minute “Symphonia”—and in his spare moments he has written a high-minded Fifth Quartet, a mischievous Piano Quintet, and a Clarinet Concerto to which you can tap your foot. His first opera—a comedy entitled “What Next?”—will appear next year. What on earth is going on?
Babbitt, in truth, has always been an unexpectedly agreeable composer. His name is frightening to some: this is the man who once called for a “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.” Babbitt, more than anyone else, pioneered the room-clearing compositional method called total serialism, in which crucial creative choices—of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and register—are derived from advanced set theory. By rights, anything written according to this scheme should turn out to be hideous. In hands other than Babbitt’s, it often has. But Babbitt was never an ideal adherent of the ideology ascribed to him. The music turns out to be witty and pretty, in a through-the-looking-glass kind of way. For all his gruff talk, Babbitt is a merry soul, and his music reflects his personality. To find a greater disjunction between artistic means and ends, you’d have to go back to the astrological poetry of Yeats.
Babbitt is, above all, lucid. He may be dealing in abstruse relations of pitch and structure, but he doesn’t make you listen to too many of them at once. His scores, like Japanese drawings, are full of empty space. Two flutes may be fluttering high up, the harp and the piano may be plucking pointillistically in the middle range, the violas may be holding one note, the cellos may be musing on a few others. The rest of the orchestra is silent, waiting its turn. Babbitt’s constantly shifting dynamic markings—pp, ff, mp, fff, p, and so forth—look herky-jerky on the page, but in the best performances they create myriad contrasts and subtleties of tone. This rigorously organized music ends up feeling improvised, free-spirited, freewheeling. (For a fine illustration, listen to a recording of recent Babbitt piano pieces played by Martin Goldray, on the CRI label.) And the harmony is never as dissonant as the serial method ought to make it. Babbitt favors gentler, strummier combinations of tones: he likes to throw in open intervals of fourths and fifths, out-of-the-blue triads, splashes of white keys in place of chromatic clusters. Such effects have been called “tonal punning.” They do the work of dissonance in eighteenth-century music—they are pranks and pricks, shocks and surprises. Before you can come to terms with them, they disappear, like half-familiar faces in a crowd.
Babbitt’s Second Piano Concerto had its première on November 15th, at Carnegie Hall, with Robert Taub playing the solo part and James Levine conducting the Met Orchestra. The opening is captivating: scattered tones give way to a wealth of sustained chords and brightly sputtering piano figures. The piano seems intent on a rising minor third, and from that interval a spectrum of harmonies opens up, major and minor triads among them. The concerto picks up speed, breaks apart, thins out, and thickens again in waves. The whole central section feels like an extended improvisation, with few obvious changes of texture and mood. The piano flits between extreme upper and lower registers and comes to rest on downward-sighing, overlapping arpeggios à la Brahms. Toward the end, harmonies grow ever more lush and fin-de-siècle: there are noble ideas in the trumpet and the trombone, lonely thoughts from the violas, open-ended chords that hover around A, a few bebop shrugs to close. I heard the piece twice—at a rehearsal and in performance. The second hearing was obscured by noise in the audience and uncertainty in the orchestra. (Babbitt makes severe demands on players, especially on high strings.) Still, Levine gave the music a beautiful sheen, and Taub delivered the solo part with force and feeling. Babbitt burbles on, no end in sight.
Elliott Carter’s new pieces have caught me off guard. They are pulling me into a musical world that I thought was closed to me. Like many listeners—even a few reasonably well-informed ones—I have thought of the typical Carter work as an esoteric hoo- tenanny of clotted chords, knotted rhythms, every-man-for-himself orchestration, and general intellectual mayhem. In the fifties and sixties, Carter was the Action painter among composers, applying notes in gummy layers. Yet it’s not easy for a composer to paint one note on top of another: music is like watercolors, in that if you use too much paint everything turns brown. The summa of Carter’s action style was the Piano Concerto, which was dedicated to Stravinsky and seemed to update “The Rite of Spring” to the strident marketplace of 1965. Stravinsky, in a thank-you note, acclaimed the concerto as “a masterpiece” but admitted that he had trouble hearing everything on page 54. Carter, wearing a wolfish grin, was photographed in front of page 54, which has fifty strings playing fifty-odd different notes. If Stravinsky struggled, what hope was there for the rest of us? When I pored over the scores, studied Carterite treatises, and rattled the neighbors with repeated listenings to the recordings, I was able to grasp his difficult aesthetic. But when I listened in a more passive mode, I had the instinctive reaction that Carter has inspired in subscription audiences for decades: Please stop this crazy noise.
What’s changed? David Schiff, in a new edition of his classic study “The Music of Elliott Carter,” says that the composer has moved toward “ever-greater lucidity.” He has unpacked densities of counterpoint and replaced all-over conflict with lighthearted play. It would be facile to claim that Carter has made a volte-face; he still uses the same prickly material. But he has spread his information more cleanly on the page, and the sort of things that you might have missed before jump out at you now. The Clarinet Concerto, which Stefan Asbury conducted last summer at Tanglewood, with Thomas Martin as soloist, is a marvel of clarity. The orchestra, chamber-size, is divided into groups—winds, brass, percussion, a piano-and-harp duo, and strings—and the clarinet has lively conversations with each in turn. Indeed, like an old-style bandleader, the soloist is encouraged to saunter from one group to another as he plays. The jazzy vibe rubs off on the music: for the first time since the forties, Carter has written something that’s a little bit pop. There’s wit in the writing, too: the clarinet, that most chameleonlike of instruments, either blends with the groups or pokes fun at them (the best example being a ludicrous duet with the tuba). A similar comedy charges the Piano Quintet, which Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet introduced to New York earlier this month. The four string instruments do not engage in the furious argumentation that has marked Carter’s five string quartets; instead, they tend to be of one mind, and it’s the piano that misbehaves and carries on.
This lightness of tone carries over into Carter’s “Allegro Scorrevole,” the final movement of his gigantic “Symphonia.” The whole piece has yet to be played in this country—a strange state of affairs for the most celebrated American composer of the age. It fell to the Brooklyn Philharmonic, not the New York Philharmonic, to give the “Allegro” its local première, in November. “Symphonia” has as its subtitle “Sum fluxae pretiam spei,” which is a line from a Latin poem by Richard Crashaw meaning “I am the prize of flowing hope.” The poem describes an impudent bubble that floats over the surface of things, and the “Allegro” beautifully matches the airborne theme: a lightly lunging violin line goes on for dozens of measures, not unlike the endless reveries of Indian string music, while the high winds flutter around in roughly coördinated flocks and the brass kick in with propulsive blasts. The Brooklyn performance suffered from poor string intonation—Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” and John Adams’s “Harmonielehre” filled out an ambitious program, and rehearsal time must have been limited—but Robert Spano’s vigor on the podium helped the music take flight.
Boosey & Hawkes, Carter’s publisher, sent me a tape of the world première of “Symphonia,” which happened earlier this year under the direction of Oliver Knussen. The tape is no audiophile treasure, but it gives a sense of the sweep of the piece. (A CD will arrive next year.) The opening movement, “Partita,” sways between the vibrant and the violent, and a climactic array of ambiguous Bergian chords leaves the outcome uncertain. The middle movement, “Adagio tenebroso,” is a wandering funeral march, a procession of blocklike harmonies, quite unlike anything Carter has written before. There are brushes with Romantic tonality, including sequences of diminished sevenths and augmented triads. A Wagno-Mahlerian theme is tried out in the brass, but it is fulfilled only in a gruesome climax of screaming horns and scratching strings. Perhaps there is a Faustian lesson here: the music grasps at grandiose tonal illusions and is sprayed with orchestral shrapnel. (In an interview, Carter has equated regressive tendencies in twentieth-century music with Nazi kitsch.) The narrative is an intransigent one, and it is delivered with such conviction that I have gone back to earlier works, like the Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra, with new understanding. Carter has an emotional, and not just an intellectual, investment in his difficult style; he will not write music in which he does not believe. In ways good and bad, his story is a twentieth-century archetype. We can take heart from the fact that it is ending in triumph—if, indeed, it is ending.